Andrew Jackson, we hardly knew ye! The big news of the week is the Treasury Department is saving noted central banker and war-monger Alexander Hamilton on the $10 note, and is removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 note in favor of Harriet Tubman.
I can’t tell you how little I care about arguing who is on our money, but some of the commentary of Andrew Jackson has left me shaking my head. As someone who loves history and devoted my college years to studying it, seeing someone as important as Jackson reduced to being defined by hashtags and only 140 characters, I felt compelled to try and set the record straight.
Before we begin, let’s start by stating the obvious that you cannot define someone from the 1830s by the standards of the 2010s. That’s not to say that some of Jackson’s more abhorrent decisions—namely his slave-holding and his Indian removal policy (Trail of Tears)—cannot be criticized, as they were certainly maligned at the time by his opponents.
Our political discourse has been losing all shades of nuance and context on both sides over the last twenty years, and we are now starting to see phenomenon manifested in particular when commentators talk about historical figures. We are seeing the country turn against our own Founders by simply discounting them as racist slaveholders. While undoubtedly true, there is much more meat on the bone. Jackson, who led the second American generation, is much the same.
Jackson provided two valuable legacies to the country that we still see today. The first is the democratization of our body politic. After the Revolution and through Jackson’s rise, very few Americans actually voted. States decided how their electoral votes were allocated and some states, notably South Carolina, had their state legislatures select their electoral college members. The presidential candidates were nominated by King Caucus, a caucus of the National Republican (Jeffersonian) Party’s congressional delegation. It was Jackson who helped open our politics up, who led the charge for universal (white) male suffrage that opened our elections to the longshoreman, dirt farmers, and urban immigrant laborers. I can already hear the social justice warriors out there groaning at this, but to get where we are now we needed to go through the process that started with Jackson in 1824 through 1832.
Jackson was the original populist. He campaigned to raise up the working people, both rural and urban, against the powerful bosses, political insiders, and big bankers who nearly ran the country into the ground in the crippling 1819 depression. Jackson believed in opening up not only the politics but also the economy, for everyone.
His fight against the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) was rooted in his belief that the urban banker elites in New York and Philadelphia were out to crush the regular person. It was not pandering, Jackson was a son of the poor North Carolina frontier and understood the deprivation of those people and he knew how little these powerful elites cared about them. His followers’ devotion to him came not only from his military exploits, but also from the fact that he was a general in a militia and not in an undemocratic standing army, a fact meeting with much public approval at the time.
As much as anyone else from the period between the Founding of the country and the Civil War, Andrew Jackson deserves the most credit for bringing democracy to our republican process. So when Barack Obama campaigned on hope and change, and harnessing a broad coalition of working class Americans, he can thank Andrew Jackson for the powerful resonance of that message.
The second part of Andrew Jackson’s legacy deserving praise is the 1832-33 Nullification Crisis. You can find books upon books to read about this, but the core truth is that the slaveholding plantation owner from Tennessee stood up for the Union against South Carolina and John Calhoun, who attempted to nullify federal tariff laws they thought unjust to them. Jackson understood early on what nullification meant, specifically to slavery. Jackson not only stood up to Calhoun and the nullifiers, he pushed a Force Bill and was ready to invade the state. What Jackson did in that crisis was to stand above his roots and even his personal interests and put the Union ahead of everything else. When modern critics dismiss Jackson as simply a racist, one should be made to read about the Nullification Crisis.
What Jackson built in the 1820s and 1830s was a political movement based on a populist appeal based on notions of economic freedom, mass democracy, and national unity. To this day it remains controversial, but certainly deserves more respect than what seems to be given him these days. Jackson’s coalition of poor farmers in the South and West, together with the middle and working classes of the East, united against the political elites, bankers, and to quote today’s vernacular, the “one percenters ,” was nothing short of revolutionary for it’s time.
That coalition and its legacy is still felt today. There are Jacksonian appeals in almost every political candidate today … someone like Bernie Sanders raging against the monied elite, Ted Cruz fighting for limited government, Donald Trump appealing to the blue collar working class, and even Hillary Clinton’s belief in opening the process up to more and more people in the country all have their roots in Andrew Jackson.
He is not simply a racist slave-holder who killed Indians; he was perhaps the single most important American political figure of the 19th century, standing side-by-side with Abraham Lincoln. Every politician after him claimed his legacy no matter what party they were from. His actions and words set the stage for Lincoln’s ultimate victory over Southern secessionists. His fight against the BUS was the beginning of a long political battle still raging today about how we define a free enterprise system and who controls it. His appeal to the masses horrified the elites of his era and afterwards, a paradigm that has been repeated throughout American history.
Personally, I am torn on Andrew Jackson. One cannot simply look away from the Trail of Tears. It was a ghastly event that should never be forgotten and should always be brought up when he is discussed. But so should everything else I’ve written above. He was perhaps the first true American president and his profile has been the one that we have seen elected over and over again in one form or another. So please, let’s not let nincompoops writing in 140 characters make us forget this.
Interestingly, Jackson vetoed more legislation than his six predecessors combined, and often because of what he perceived as Federal overreach (or pork-barrel spending). He was strongly mistrustful of foreign powers, and projected that mistrust (rightly or wrongly) on Native Americans.
Yes, like many historical figures, Jackson was controversial, to say the least. But I agree that today’s political correctness is about erasing history more than appreciating it.
I think the bio of Jackson I read was titled “American Lion.” Also, I have visited Hermitage, near Nashville. Interesting tour!
I find it a bit funny that Democrats are ditching a “founding father” of their party and replacing him with a gun-toting, God-fearing Republican woman.
That aside, Jackson was a great President for 3 reasons IMHO:
1. As stated above, Jackson poo-pooed the 2nd Bank of the United States. This took great courage. In retribution, the bank president Nicholas Biddle deliberately manipulated the currency to cause financial havoc and devastated the economy. Biddle was a villain of Americana and should be remembered with Benedict Arnold as a traitor.
2. Jackson is the only president to pay off the federal debt. Yes, the ONLY time the USA was debt free was under Jackson. Bravo, President Jackson.
3. Jackson saw the inherent evil in the concept of “incorporation” and vocally deliberated the effects these soulless entities would have on the country’s landscape. “Incorporation” did not exist before his time. Everything was owned by individuals. Now, nobody even debates whether incorporation should exist (although I think we should).
Both parties have changed dramatically since their inception so your comment about a founding father of the democratic party is nonsense. The GOP today is not the GOP as it was founded.
SD, it is universally accepted that Jackson is a founding father of the modern Democrats:
From Wikipedia’s “Democratic Party (United States): “After the War of 1812 the Federalists virtually disappeared and the only national political party left was the Democratic-Republicans. The era of one-party rule in the United States, known as the Era of Good Feelings, lasted from 1816 until the early 1830s, when the Whig Party became a national political group to rival the Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republican party still had its own internal factions, however. They split over the choice of a successor to President James Monroe, and the party faction that supported many of the old Jeffersonian principles, led by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, became the modern Democratic Party…”
The legacy of Andrew Jackson is the legacy of the Democratic Party, like it or not.
“you cannot define someone from the 1830s by the standards of the 2010s”??? Nonsense!
It is only with hindsight and current social and political conventions that any of us review history! If one cannot use the standard of today to reflect and judge what happen before, when can we? How much time must pass before our past is simply accepted and not judged?
By your way of thinking, the racism and discrimination of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s but be accepted simply because it was common place back then. Nonsense!
Depends I guess. The 1830s was a long long long time ago and there was a general consensus on issues like race that have been completely turnover. All I’m saying is that it is important to keep into context the times these people lived in … we cannot judge historical figures entirely by the standards of our time. I consider the 50s, 60s and 70s as our time.
Populism in American politics is a disaster, which is self-evident enough this cycle, but that the author would use this train wreck primary season as evidence of Jackson’s wonderful legacy is, ah, incredible.
There are reasons that America was made a republic, not a democracy, and the examples the author gives are among them, not proof of democratization and populism’s success.
Populism is the result and proof of America’s failure to limit government to its proper role—the defense of natural rights—and is a logical, selfish reaction to the state’s increasing intrusion into personal lives and markets. The more the state intrudes, the more power it wields, the greater the demand for a say in its operation, which is to say the greater the demand for a piece of the action. America’s intelligence in limiting government and the ability of republicanism, not democracy, to maintain such a government was once lauded by capital-L Liberalism. But already, the American state was growing beyond its proper role, and the inevitable demands for expanding the vote came with that.
Populism is not a virtue of the American system, it is a result of a failure of the American system.
“As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose — that it may violate property instead of protecting it — then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious. To know this, it is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in the French and English legislatures; merely to understand the issue is to know the answer.
Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy society itself? If such proof is needed, look at the United States [in 1850]. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United States, there are two issues — and only two — that have always endangered the public peace. [slavery and tariffs]”
two things. One … Jacksonian populism is not what is described above. His fight against both the bank and the nullifiers was about taking state intrusion out of our lives and about limiting government’s intrusion on the rights of it’s citizens.
Jackson was no saint, for sure.
I liked and shared this, but a little proof-reading and editing would help it alot.
working on it thanks … wrote this at work on a lark.
Sorry about that. Thanks for letting us know. We’re working on it.